“I see a Fish!” Mlungi shouts through his snorkel. His face is pressed into the blue water above Limestone reef, his feet are unaccustomed to the long fins but he kicks enthusiastically, exploring every nook and cranny of the shallow reef in next to the Durban harbour wall. Two days earlier, Mlungi had never been completely submerged in water. He is one of four young men that were selected by the I am Water Trust for a freediving course aimed at introducing South Africans from all walks of life into the Ocean Environment. We started the course at the Kingspark Swimming Pool where the students learned the basics of yogic breath control, abdominal breathing techniques and the theory of freediving history, competitions and physiology. After a light lunch it was time to kit up for the pool session. With two competent life savers, one semi-pro surfer and one absolute water-newbie, the stage was set for an exciting afternoon! Mlungi the newbie was shaking as a leaf as he lowered himself into the warm pool, his breathing erratic and laboured as he learns to master the snorkel and gets his first experience of looking underwater. Ten minutes later he is happily floating in his buoyant wetsuit, practicing arm pulls and getting used to being in water. For Sibusiso, Sihle and surfer Quinton the challenge is different. They are comfortable in water, but to overcome the body’s powerful screaming for oxygen during a static breath hold is a hard task for any waterman and diaphragmatic contractions are experienced and withstood. Sihle laughs proudly when he comes up from a strong breath hold to hear that he has held his breath for over three and a half minutes, a long time for the first time! Pulling down to 5 meters we practice equalisation, comfort underwater and free immersion techniques. At the end of the day, everyone is confident for the 7am launch the next morning.
Day two dawns rainy and grey and we hurry into our wetsuits at the Ski Boat Club, knowing that it being Durban water, we will be warmer in the ocean than on land! A short run past the harbour wall we find fifteen meters of water and some friendly dolphins swim by splashing their welcome to the new freedivers. The buoy is prepared, bottom weight dropped and the rope guides the way into the blue watery depths. One by one the guys take deep breaths and pull themselves down the rope. Five meters, seven meters, ten meters and twelve meters. Their confidence grows with every dive and far below we can hear the humpback whales singing, cheering them on. Deeper diving mastered, we make a stop at Limestone reef where we snorkel around looking at brightly coloured reef fish, shy eels and hundreds of mussels. Everybody finds something to marvel at, the diversity of the ocean never disappointing. Sibusiso dives to the bottom again and again, coming up smiling, ˜I have seen such beautiful things here, a white eel and a box fish!” He sticks his head under every rock hanging upside down, exploring the underwater fairyland. Sihle comes up spluttering in excitement from having seen a large Kingfish, wishing he had a speargun with him. Having combed the reef for all her secrets, we head back to shore to do some deeper yoga stretching and Apnea exercises at Ushaka Marine World. We are the guests of the Oceanic Research Institute at Ushaka, spending time meeting more ocean friends on display and using the green lawns as our yoga studio. Here we spend time getting deeper into the lung stretching, learning more about the right muscles for advanced freediving, and how to overcome the urge to breathe. By late afternoon everybody is richly oxygenated, rather tired and excited about when more diving can be done. Certificates of attendance are handed out as well as training packs and contact details for continued coaching. The I am Water Trust is proud of Sibusiso, Mlungi, Quinton and Sihle for their commitment, mental strength, physical ability and willingness to experience something new.